Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Jungle Book

In anticipation of the premiere of the new film directed by Jon Favreau, I re-read some of Rudyard Kipling’s story collection, The Jungle Book. The first three stories are the ones about Mowgli, the human boy raised by wolves and living among animals in the jungle. I recently attended Diane Frankenstein’s workshops on how parents can help children get more out of what they’re reading by learning techniques on how to have meaningful conversations about books, and what really stuck in my mind is her maxim: “You can never come to a book too late, only too early.” The Jungle Book is certainly such a book.

I remember seeing Disney’s animated film version as a child, excitedly rushing to the library shortly afterward to borrow the book, and then quickly following it up with Kipling’s Just So Stories. The only thing that stayed with me after all these years is the general plot, with the impression made deeper by images from the loosely-interpreted film. After re-reading at my ripe old age of *ahem*, I can now fully appreciate Kipling’s genius in language and story-telling.

Kipling, an Englishman who lived in India, was an outsider like his character Mowgli. For The Jungle Book, he mined his personal experiences, including understanding two different worlds, in order to provide social commentary on good and evil, life and death, and civilisation itself. His stories were instant successes, and he was the first Englishman and youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many parents and teachers make the mistake of believing that a book about a 10 year-old boy should be read by 10 year-olds. While The Jungle Book may have delighted children in 1894 when it was first published, its use of lyrical nineteenth-century poetry and prose would be lost on most middle-schoolers today.

Mowgli is the boy raised by wolves, and Shere Khan is the tiger that wants him dead. In addition to these two central characters are other animal characters with human qualities that are either admirable or despicable. They include Baloo the bear, Kaa the snake, and Bagheera the panther. There is an abundance of symbolism that continues even when Mowgli returns to live with the humans in the village. He is conflicted about joining the villagers even though he is an outsider in the jungle.

What I’ve summarised is the plot of the three Mowgli tales, but there is so much more to The Jungle Book (and all good literature) than its plot. Within these morality tales are themes of loyalty, courage and belonging; these are important qualities that need to be understood by and discussed with children with the help of grown-ups. There are two unabridged versions newly published with beautiful illustrations: one by Nicola Bayley and the other by Minalima Ltd. Readers who can’t get enough of Mowgli can give Pamela Jekel’s The Third Jungle Book a try, as this author continues Mowgli’s adventures in the same style as Kipling.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, and his bestselling The Graveyard Book can be enjoyed by children as young as ten. In this tale, Gaiman pays homage to Kipling by transforming the jungle setting to a graveyard setting. Just as Mowgli was raised in the jungle by animals, the protagonist here is a boy named Bod, who is raised by a motley crew of graveyard denizens. Gaiman is also a master storyteller. His inventive, contemporary style blends humour with humanity, and is appealing to readers of all ages.

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